MONTPELIER — A narrow vote supporting a charter change aimed at enforcing energy efficiency standards in Capital City buildings has sparked local backlash.
Article 14 on the Town Meeting Day ballot passed 986 to 928. After voter approval, charter changes must be approved by the Legislature. Preliminary discussion by the City Council proposed the buyer of a commercial or residential property would have to make upgrades to weatherize the building to reduce energy use.
It remains to be seen whether state lawmakers will approve the controversial request.
Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, is the ranking member of the House Government Operations Committee, which vets charter changes. He said the committee has not received nor discussed the charter change request.
“With the majority of charter changes, if this is what the community wants to do, if we feel it’s within the Constitution and our other statutes, we generally tend to approve things,” Kitzmiller said. “There are, of course, exceptions, but we come at it with a positive attitude and so does the Senate. The Senate is closer to a rubber stamp than the House is.”
Kitzmiller said he was ambivalent about the charter change request, having previously owned commercial property in the city, on Langdon Street, but said he would support the city’s request.
“I don’t think this idea is outrageous,” Kitzmiller said. “I can’t say that I’m confident in my own approval of it. I’m not sure how I feel about mandating certain levels of energy efficiency. In new buildings, yes, but in existing buildings, I’m not so sure.
“Regardless of my personal opinion, if my city wants to do this, I will support it,” he added.
The first sign of dissent in the community came at a recent City Council meeting, when Realtor Tim Heney complained the request was too vague and would be an expense passed on to tenants as higher rents. Heney also said there were more important upgrades needed for the city’s aging housing stock, such as replacing antiquated wiring that poses a fire hazard.
Steve Everett, who owns several residential and commercial properties, also is wary of the proposal.
“I think it’s a mistake to do it by legislation or regulations; I think it’s better done by incentives,” Everett said.
Everett said he’s already done as much as possible to insulate his buildings and install efficient heating systems, and was also considering other options, such as solar panels.
“But we did it because of incentives, not because someone said we had to do it,” Everett said. “I think more people are more encouraged by a carrot than a stick. If it’s going to cost you more money, it’s going to be passed along to the residents and/or tenants, whether they’re residential or commercial.
“There’s an issue of lack of affordable housing in the city, and it seems that most of the decisions that are made in terms of raising property taxes or whatever sort of defeats the purpose of making things affordable,” he added.
Census data shows there are 3,786 households in Montpelier, of which 2,091, or 55 percent, are owner-occupied while the remaining 1,695 households are rentals. There are also 256 commercial buildings in the city, of which eight are classified as industrial, such as granite sheds, according to the 2018 Montpelier Grand List.
Mayor Anne Watson has been a strong advocate for the city’s goal to be carbon emission-neutral by 2030.
Watson acknowledged the charter vote was close and noted landlords’ concerns. But she stressed the proposal was simply the beginning of a conversation about the city’s efforts to address energy use and climate change.
“I want to assure people that we will be going very slowly with this conversation,” Watson said. “We really are at the beginning of what this would look like. We’re intending to have some public meetings about it, and I think it might actually deserve some stand-alone meetings that are separate from council meetings.”
For Watson, there’s a positive trade-off when it comes investing in energy efficiency.
“There are ways to space out the payment and match it with how much you’re saving,” she said. “It can look like a lot of money upfront, sometimes, but part of our work is to figure out how to make that workable for homeowners.”
This includes offering rebates for energy-efficient homes and loans from the city’s revolving loan fund to finance building upgrades. Watson said the city hopes to partner with other agencies to leverage additional funds for efficiency programs.
Watson said VSECU offers low-interest loans for building weatherization. Efficiency Vermont can also help low-income tenants with high energy bills apply for free energy-efficient appliances, such as refrigerators, washing machines and heat pumps.
The Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee has teamed up with Efficiency Vermont to help the city’s landlords and tenants with energy efficiency projects. Services include free building walk-throughs to identify and prioritize projects and connect them to contractors for weatherization projects.
Committee chair Kate Stephenson said a city energy efficiency ordinance could follow other proposals in Vermont that require building upgrades but cap the amount of money spent. The committee is looking at funding sources for energy-efficiency programs in the city.
“What people seem to not take into consideration is that these improvements are also intended to save energy, so potentially the rent might increase but the utility costs could go down,” Stephenson said. “The math is going to pencil out differently on each building, but the intent of this ordinance is to make energy costs more affordable for renters.
“It’s also worth noting that, in an average year, there are only three to four multi-family buildings that change ownership in Montpelier, so if enacted, this would be slowly implemented over a long period of time,” she added.
Efficiency Vermont program manager Phoebe Howe noted building weatherization increases property values while saving energy and money and improves living conditions, particularly for low-income tenants.
“It helps building owners do something about their buildings and reduce energy burden, but also helps renters who don’t have much power over their living situations,” Howe said.
For Eileen Nooney at Capstone Community Action in Barre, who helps low-income people find affordable housing, “the devil is in the details” when determining how the charter change would affect her clients.
Nooney is concerned standards could drive up housing costs and be passed onto her clients as higher rents, above and beyond the value of federal and state housing vouchers.
“Now that person is on the hook for a larger portion of their rent,” Nooney said. “For each of these details, there’s another detail.”
Watson, however, remains optimistic lawmakers will pass the change since it would help the state achieve its own goal to reduce carbon emissions in absence of a carbon tax.
“My guess is that they’re looking for other alternatives, other ways to demonstrate that they’re trying to move on climate change,” Watson said. “Here’s an opportunity to have municipalities to be involved in energy efficiency. If we think we have the capacity to do that, then I don’t see why they would say no.”
Energy efficiency standards are one of three Montpelier charter changes that legislators are being asked to consider. One would allow non-citizens to vote in city elections and the other would ban single-use plastic shopping bags, drinking straws and take-out food containers.
Kitzmiller said his committee has already reviewed these proposals and expects the plastic ban will pass since there’s similar legislation in the works.
“So, the only question is, should we do a Montpelier charter change, or should we do it statewide?” Kitzmiller said of the plastic ban. “My feeling is that we should go ahead and do the Montpelier charter change, because who knows whether the statewide idea would gain traction.”